lent 2010: humility

“What makes humility so desirable is the marvelous thing it does to us; it creates in us a capacity for the closest possible intimacy with God.” – Monica Baldwin

Our new church contains many symbolic pieces. One of the first to appear as you enter the sanctuary is a floor tile bearing the image of a donkey and the word HUMILITY. What a perfect animal to represent this word. After all, it was upon the back of a simple donkey that Mary and Joseph rode to Bethlehem to bring Jesus into the world.

Humility has been categorized as one of “the seven heavenly virtues.” Conversely, its opposing vice – pride – has been named one of “the seven deadly sins.”

I have, in times past especially, been confused over what each of these means. For years I didn’t understand why something that seemed as benign as pride (at least in the way I was thinking about it – feeling rightly pleased with one’s accomplishments and progress, for example) could be deadly. But as I’ve grown in my faith, I’ve come to better understand why pride can be so incredibly damaging to the soul, and how, without humility, the soul withers.

It’s important to recognize the difference between true humility and false humility. False humility has been defined as “the deprecation of one’s sanctity, gifts, talents and accomplishments for the sake of receiving praise or adulation from others.” (Who among us has not done this, even if we weren’t entirely aware of our intent?) Conversely, legitimate humility results in submission to God and legitimate authority, and recognition of the virtues and talents of others, as well as recognition of the limits of our own talents and abilities.

In other words, humility helps us know our place, but in a way that allows us to flourish within that space, given our particular talents and gifts, and to not extend our reach beyond where it was meant to go.

Despite what we might sometimes believe, true humility does not suppress us, it frees us. How can God fill us up with light and love if we’re already full? If God is God, He sees much further than we possibly can; therefore, He knows better what we need to be filled up with in order to be our best selves. We must, therefore, be empty enough to make room for God’s beautiful plan for us.

And I don’t mean empty of energy or resources. We need those to do God’s will. But we also need to reserve some space within ourselves to make room for God’s grace. When we are filled with pride, when we are deluded into thinking we control our lives and that everything we have has come entirely from our own actions, there are few spaces within us into which God can enter. Lack of humility or excessive pride leads to death of the soul as God becomes edged out.

If we’re really honest with ourselves, we realize every breath we take is truly a gift from God! If we begin on our knees, the only direction to go is up.

But oh, it can be so hard to humble ourselves. Our culture trains us toward pride. We are conditioned to believe we are self-made individuals, not in need of God. And though we are attracted to true humility (think Blessed Teresa of Calcutta), humility is not highly prized within our society. We tend to look down upon humility, while humility itself always looks upward from below.

“Be like violets,” St. Gaetano used to say, as mentioned in the book, My Cousin the Saint. “The violet is a flower that does not stand tall. Its petals face downward. It hides beneath the leaves. But it gives off a delightful scent.” St. Gaetano also was known to say often that “A grain of pride can destroy a mountain of sanctity."

Novelist John Buchan phrased it richly when he said, “Without humility, there can be no humanity.”

And contemporary Christian recording artist Bebo Norman expressed it rather poetically when he sang, “You become clear as I disappear.”

Lord, help me to stay empty enough so that those who see me see You.